Sometimes consumer electronics are destined for the grave from the very beginning—such as the time Atari literally buried thousands of E.T. the Extraterrestrial cartridges after abysmal reviews from the get go. Other times, they gather some initial excitement but ultimately fail to go mainstream, an epilogue that haunts the basements beneath early adopters of Betamax, LaserDisc, and HD DVD.
Then there are the game changers, the advancements in technology and thinking that usher in the future and give early adopters the right to boast I told you so: the color television, the iPod—and, yes, 4K video.
While the film industry might fight more battles against obsolescence than most, its widespread shift to ultra-high-definition (UHD) 4K, which brings a fourfold increase in resolution over standard high definition, is neither a fad nor a phase. This coming summer will mark the fifth anniversary of YouTube’s embrace of the format. By itself, this was probably enough to ensure its eventual success, owing to YouTube’s integration with Google (and, by proxy, online ads, email, smartphones, and everything else we’re glued to from the time we open our eyes). However, it also gave a green light to filmmakers, manufacturers, and competitors, who have since had plenty of time to play catch-up.
Fast-forward to 2015, and you’ll be hard pressed to name a media company that’s not vested in 4K. We even have a formal “UHD Alliance,” comprised of players like Samsung, Sony, LG, Disney, Warner Bros., Dolby, and Netflix, all working in unison to promote the technology as the new standard. Add the fact that 4K televisions are currently for sale from Walmart, and it’s plainly time to stop viewing ultra-high-definition as an emerging technology fit only for early adopters and videophiles.
If you’re buying a television in 2015, you can go ahead and skip the 3D and curved surfaces, but you won’t want to be without 4K. Live UHD streaming from cable and satellite providers might still be a ways off, but today’s 4K displays can upscale 1080i broadcasts (which include everything from HBO and Showtime to AMC, NBC, and The Weather Channel) to resolutions far beyond the capabilities of high-definition. We can’t officially call this “4K resolution,” but we might as well—and authentic 4K packages are just around the corner.
The picture is even brighter for cord cutters, with not just YouTube, but Vimeo, Netflix, and Amazon all streaming in 4K. Manufactures like Samsung and Sony are also offering separate streaming services to boost sales of their TVs, and 4K “Ultra HD Blu-ray” discs are set to release later this year amid the next generation of media players.
Of course, these are all trickle-down effects from the explosion of 4K cameras. Premium cinema cameras proved the concept years ago, and now virtually every camera company is competing for share of the new market, from professional DSLRs all the way down to ultra-portable (and affordable) action cameras like the new 4K GoPro, which retails for less than $500.
A common misconception is that manufacturers have put the cart before the horse by releasing 4K displays far ahead of 4K footage, but the real gap has been in infrastructure.
Many filmmakers have been recording in UHD for years, but haven’t had a way to get that footage into living rooms. Fortunately, that barrier is fast disappearing.
Of course, if you want five more reasons to upgrade, Netflix lists all five seasons of Breaking Bad among its 4K offerings—and Heisenberg has never looked better.